What is a jitney?
It’s an American mini-cab and it’s the title of a play which opens at the Old Vic this month directed by Tinuke Craig.
So, Jitney is a play about taxis, like Starlight Express was a play about trains, and Craig will be directing traffic?
No, it’s a play by August Wilson about the men who drive them and work in and for a jitney office in Pittsburgh (the area where Wilson grew up) in the predominantly black Hill district in the late 1970s. It sings with the hustle and bustle of daily life as the cab-drivers go into the areas of Pittsburgh where other drivers won’t go. As John Lahr wrote of Wilson in a 2001 New Yorker profile, “his plays are not talking textbooks; they paint the big picture indirectly, from the little incidents of daily life.”
August Wilson? What else did he write?
Jitney is one of the lesser known plays in Wilson’s 10 play Pittsburgh cycle, which also includes plays you will definitely know including Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Fences. If Arthur Miller’s plays charted white middle America during the mid 20th century, then Wilson’s plays are a remarkable dramatic document of black American experience throughout the 20th century. Wilson’s plays dramatize and celebrate the lives of America’s overlooked and unseen: the bin collectors, the cleaners, the waiters --and mini-cab drivers. Speaking about his cycle, each play of which is set in a different decade, Wilson said: “put the plays together and you have a history.” A history which until Wilson came along and started writing had not been told on American stages.
Sule Rimi and Leanne Henlon in rehearsals for Jitney at The Old Vic.
What were his influences?
Poets and visual artists and the Blues rather than other playwrights. He hardly ever went to the theatre and when he began writing plays he hadn’t read Chekhov, Ibsen, Miller or O’Neill. He never set out to be a playwright but wanted to be a poet and for all their naturalism the plays have a poetry about them and a pulsating rhythm. But he saw theatre as a means of creating change saying, “I remain fascinated by the idea of an audience as a community of people who gather willingly to bear witness.”
Why has Jitney been overlooked?
It shouldn’t have been, but largely because it was a very early play which was subsequently revised and wasn’t seen on Broadway until 2017. Partly because it was overshadowed by the subsequent success two years later in 1984 of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. But it is a hugely enjoyable play with a big heart and a compassionate eye which was written by Wilson in just 10 days while sitting in a café. It was the play in which he found his own voice but also the voice of black America which hadn’t really been seen on American stages since the success of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in 1959.
Hasn’t Jitney been on quite recently in the UK?
Well spotted. Directed by Tinuke Craig, this is a co-production with Headlong and Leeds Playhouse where this production was staged last Autumn to very enthusiastic reviews. The Guardian got excited about the ensemble performances and The Stage delighted in Wilson’s genius for character, writing: “these are real people with real problems, and Wilson’s poetic, crackling dialogue makes them come alive.” Good to the Old Vic giving the production a London run.
August Wilson, a giant amongst playwrights. Up there with the American greats.
These guys didn’t see Uber coming.
Cover photo by Sharron Wallace of Tony Marshall and Leemore Marrett Jr in the Leeds Playhouse performance of Jitney which runs from 9th June through 9th July 2022 at The Old Vic, tickets found here.